Global Politics

Poland Wants US Travel Visa-Free

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(Photo: Dave McGuire)

Natalia Piotrowicz, who lives in the Polish city of Warsaw, planned to fly stand-by to Argentina with her German boyfriend and Danish friend earlier this year. But when they got to the airport, the flight was full.

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"Then one of the guys came up with the idea to go to United States, to New York, but I couldn't do that because of the visa," Piotrowicz said.

Poland is one of the few countries in Europe whose citizens still need to get visas to visit the United States for tourism. It can take weeks and over a $100 to get one. It's a sore point for Poland, which has long been among America's staunchest allies in Europe.

Piotrowicz didn't end up going to New York that day.

"Sure, it's not the end of the world, but it's annoying, it's inconvenient," she said.

It's also a bit embarrassing. Successive Polish governments have tried for years to get Poland on the US visa waiver list, like its neighbors in the European Union.

The reason Poles still need visas is because so many are rejected when they apply. Without getting the rejection rate under a certain percentage, the US won't add Poland to the visa waiver program.

Last year, when President Obama met with his Polish counterpart, he made a promise.

"I am going to make this a priority, and I want to solve this issue before very long," President Obama said. "My expectation is that this problem will be solved during my presidency."

Now Obama is wrapping up his current European tour with a visit to Poland on Friday, and Poles are hoping he'll address the issue.
National Pride

Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas, a former member of the Polish foreign affairs ministry, said it's a matter of national pride.

"Poland feels discriminated against," Kostrzewa-Zorbas said, "differentiated from other allies of the United States around the world."

From the Polish point of view, visas just don't make sense, he said.

"Will al-Qaeda penetrate America disguised as Polish peasants? Will the job market be flooded by unqualified, culturally alien workers from Poland? Of course not," Kostrzewa-Zorbas said.

The visa issue may be why Poland's usually high public opinion of the United States has taken a slide lately. But Zbigniew Lewicki, speaking outside of the University of Warsaw where he teaches, said it doesn't really matter what Poles think.
Backing Down

"Too many people in this country think that we, as Poles, deserve better, or more than anybody else," said Lewicki. "I don't buy it."

Lewicki said he thinks many Poles are turned down for visas because they clearly plan to work illegally in the United States, so it's ridiculous for the US to back down.

The president would need congressional support to change the rules for Poland. But Kostzrewa-Zorbas said if Obama doesn't make a big statement on the visa issue while he's in Warsaw, it will be a disaster.

"This will be a major disappointment and it will spoil the whole visit of Obama in Poland," he said.

But Zbigniew Lewicki said there are bigger issues on the table between Poland and the US; for instance, the growing calls in Europe for a ban on shale gas drilling — a major blow to Poland's hopes for energy independence. Visas, Lewicki said, are a minor distraction.

"It would be a huge mistake if both issues, shale gas and visas, are raised at the same time, and Obama says, 'sorry, I can't help you with gas, but here's visas.'"